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Guided by AAAS Peer-Review, States Make the Most of Their R&D Programs

[A variation of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the 30 January 2015 issue of Science.]

With federal R&D funding as a percentage of GDP at its lowest levels in several decades, states are doing what they can to support innovation within their own borders. Many have created their own funding programs to boost their high-tech sectors and attract top science and technology talent and investment.

North Carolina's general assembly, for example, has created an annual fund for "game-changing" research in several key areas at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The first round of awards, announced 10 February, will fund six three-year grants totaling nearly $9 million, for research on carbon-based electronics, big-data analytics, new drug-delivery technologies, and more. The awards "demonstrate legislators' growing appreciation of the role university research can play in supporting economic development across our state," said Christopher Brown, vice president for research and graduate education at the University of North Carolina.

To ensure that their dollars are going to projects based on the soundest, most promising science, the University of North Carolina General Administration and other state-level funders in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and South Dakota rely on AAAS's Research Competitiveness Program (RCP), which uses its nationwide network of expert reviewers to evaluate funding proposals.

When designing their funding competitions, "states play to their strengths," said Rieko Yajima, RCP's associate director. "They are targeting their research dollars to areas where they feel they have the best competitive edge." RCP staff then draw from their nationwide network of reviewers whose areas of expertise match the proposals.

If reviewers do not reach consensus on a proposal, RCP staff facilitate a discussion to help them arrive at a final decision that includes suggestions to applicants for strengthening their proposals. "Going through those different opinions and coming to an agreement strengthens the review in the end. You have an opinion that is backed up by all the reviewers," Yajima said.

Representatives from these programs agreed that it would be nearly impossible for them to develop a similar peer-review system on their own. They also said the confidential process provides objectivity that, along with AAAS's strong reputation, can assure voters that their dollars are being spent fairly.

This credibility has long-term benefits for awardees. Those that have received funding from the Maine Technology Institute often report that they are then able to attract further funding, said Joe Migliaccio, director of business development at MTI. Migliaccio's program at MTI invests $4 to 5.5 million per year in loans, grants, and equity to support R&D of new products or services in Maine's key technology sectors. Since 2007, MTI has also awarded $53 million in bond-backed grants through its Maine Technology Asset Fund, said Martha Bentley, the fund's program manager.

MTI is one of several programs that are expanding their activities, with new funding opportunities rolling out and voters or legislators approving new financing mechanisms.

"Voters are continuing to support R&D as an economic engine in Maine," Bentley said. For example, a 2014 referendum approved additional bonds in support of biomedical and marine research.

Another state-based funder, Connecticut Innovations, has responded directly to national trends with its Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF), which opened its doors in 2014 and has awarded approximately $4.5 million to five universities and four companies, with AAAS overseeing the scientific review of applications.

"The key opinion leaders in our state saw a couple of factors coming together," when they created the CBIF, said Margaret Cartiera, director of bioscience initiatives at Connecticut Innovations. The state has a strong concentration of pharmaceutical and medical device companies, but many were downsizing or closing their R&D units. And state officials were concerned that decreased federal funding to Connecticut universities would make them less attractive to top faculty and slow technology transfer, according to Cartiera, which is why the fund is open to universities and nonprofits as well as commercial establishments.


Kathy Wren